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Saturday 5 March 2016

Essay: Who Reads The Book Before It Is Published?

Quite often, no one, except maybe the author. That's my hypothesis. Here's the argument.

On several occasions reviewing books here and elsewhere, I have had the feeling, "No one has actually read this before signing it off and sending it to the printers". The feeling has arisen in different ways.In the case of Gerald Steinacher's Nazis On The Run (Oxford University Press 2011) the book was obviously a first draft, repetitive and unstructured with inconclusive arguments. Surely, I felt, if an editor of any kind had actually read this - cover to cover - before it went to press, they would have called halt and asked for quite a lot of re-writing. (I realise my review of this book is not on this site, so I will add it as my next Blog).

Then in the case of Suzanne Rindell's The Other Typist (2013) reviewed on this Blog 24 June 2014, I found myself making a list of anachronisms which damaged the verisimilitude of a text which aimed to sound like the voice of a 1920s American woman. Surely, I thought, any friend of the author or reasonably alert publisher's editor would have underlined them and proposed alternatives (or told the author to find alternatives).

And then this week, reading the enthusiastic endorsements on the cover of Colm Toibin's Brooklyn (originally 2009), I really did wonder, Have they all actually read it?

Reading a book takes time, a lot of time. It's very hard to make a profit on it - I write that as someone for whom, over a fifty years period, reading comes second only to sleeping in the hours of my life it has absorbed. Publishers know there is no profit in reading, which is why modern publishing is geared towards making key publishing decisions without reading any books. 

I discover this as I look at publishers' websites - I have a book I want to offer them. Quite reasonably, I think, some of them want an initial A4 Book Proposal in order to make a quick decision on whether to take any interest at all. But quite a few of them want quite a lot more than that. On an eight page form, you not only give them a title, a table of contents, a synopsis (helpfully characterised as suitable for a jacket  blurb), but also a target market, promotional venues, a list of names of those who will provide product endorsements ("puffs") which can be printed on the jacket, the names of a couple of friends who will say that you are a jolly good person, and so on. There may be a caveat - we will, of course, send the book out for independent review before we make a decision - but it looks to me that this proposal is not just a piece of bureaucratic gatekeeping, it's basically as close to your book as the publishing house is going to get. Get past the gatekeeper and from then on you will simply be waved through.

There is, of course, a fictional trope of the Author and Editor huddled over a manuscript, of late night phone calls, of arguments and bust-ups. I am beginning to think that nowadays that may be all it is, a fictional trope.

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